Brian Kelly suspected that he had a safety problem all off-season.
When quizzed on Max Redfield, Elijah Shumate and the rest of that unproven depth chart, Notre Dame’s head coach would lament communication, assignments and fundamentals. He admitted the position had misnomer potential, a trap door for Notre Dame’s defense more than a safety valve.
As No. 6 Notre Dame prepares for the nation’s second-leading rusher and the rest of No. 9 Stanford, Kelly’s instincts have been proven uncomfortably correct. And that reality could eliminate the Irish from the College Football Playoff chase on Saturday night, making strength of schedule, Top 25 wins and head-to-head matchups moot.
You think Notre Dame has an explosive run game? Its run defense has imploded in equal measure. The Irish have notched 24 runs of at least 20 yards this season, which ranks among the nation’s best. They’ve also allowed a staggering 23 runs of at least that distance. That ranks No. 111 nationally, tied with Wyoming and North Texas.
There’s no simple solution. There is an obvious reason.
“I'd like to give you an easy answer,” Kelly said. “But when you give up big plays, you need second-level and third-level support. I think our first-level defense has been really, really good. Our second-level defense has been solid. And our third level has not been as good.”
That third level is the back of Notre Dame’s defense, meaning safety.
For a second straight year the position has struggled, both on the field and in the training room. Shumate and Redfield were both benched last November. They haven’t come off the field much this fall, but part of that might be because their backups are either out for the year or trending that way. Drue Tranquill tore his ACL against Georgia Tech. Avery Sebastian broke his foot against Texas. Nicky Baratti’s shoulder injuries have hurt his tackling ability.
The uptick in 20-yard runs has been unnerving for Notre Dame based on past precedents, even under Brian VanGorder. Heading into the regular season finale last year, the Irish had allowed just nine 20-yard runs. In each of the final three years under Bob Diaco, the Irish allowed just seven runs of 20 yards through the season’s first 11 games.
“I would say it’s definitely details, paying attention to the little things and making sure that we’re in our gaps and we’re not trying to make somebody else’s play,” said defensive tackle Sheldon Day. “I would definitely say it’s a lot more mental than it is physical.”
The only safety switch available is Matthias Farley, who played the first half against Pittsburgh while Elijah Shumate sat following a targeting suspension. Panthers quarterback Nate Peterman went 3-of-18 in that half and got picked by Farley. The Panthers did spring three 20-yard runs in that half.
Farley also filled in for Redfield against Georgia Tech and Navy. They rotated against USC.
“Knowing your assignment. Being constantly focused on the play at hand, what they might do to attack us. And then just executing,” said linebacker Joe Schmidt. “Then not missing tackles.
“When you talk about big plays it’s either missed tackles or a mental breakdown. We’re working on that right now.”
Stanford has a run game similar to Notre Dame in its explosiveness.
The Cardinal have 23 runs of at least 20 yards and Christian McCaffrey, who’s second nationally in rushing yardage. He’s put together nine straight 100-yard games. It’s all enough to stress Notre Dame’s rush defense entering a must-win finale.
The Irish allowed two explosive runs last week, but to Boston College’s quarterbacks, including that 80-yard score by Jeff Smith. The Irish defense, whether that was Jaylon Smith or Redfield, missed an assignment on that touchdown.
“And so when you're giving up 75-yard runs, it's generally third-level support,” Kelly said. “So I think you can kind of understand that from a defensive structure, when you give up plays of that magnitude, you have to address it with specific eye control and discipline, which we've lacked at times.”